Roofing: My DiY Home Improvement Saga


Even as far as the housing market tumbled, we still ended up with what the real estate folks call a “fixer upper”.  We got a nice 50s ranch house in the San Fernando Valley from the original owner who was moving into an assisted living home.  She had kept a nice neat place, with glorious rose bushes in the front and back yards–but the paint and wall paper was from the mid 80s and the furnace was from the 50s.

At least the appliances had just been replaced.

The roof was the biggest issue.  New cedar shake roofs have been banned in Los Angeles since sometime before 1990.  We still had one in 2008–which would have made it at least 28 years old if it had been put in right before the law was passed, which I doubt.  A little investigation revealed an earlier roof still lived under the current one, most likely the original 1950s version.  Any roofer, insurance agent, home inspector, or Realtor will tell you 30 years is an old roof.  It didn’t leak, but it had to go. After buying the house, and then having a wedding six months later, we didn’t have a whole bunch of money to throw at the problem. So we had to rip off two old layers of cedar and put on a new roof, and do it all for as little as possible.

In our liabilities column we had two layers of old roof, a budget half what most people would spend on a job like this, and a two week deadline because I was doing this while on vacation from another job.  In our asset column we had a can-do attitude, myself and my able-bodied wife, my 60 year-old father who had just put a roof on his house (I mean, he put it on himself with very little help) and my father-in-law’s tools. 

I’ll share a few tips, and shortcuts, to try to help you out when the time comes to do something like this at your house.

First thing in a project like this is always out with the old–and the demolition can be the most fun part of the job.  It’s also the hardest if you have to do it all yourself.  The good thing is, if you have friends like mine, they will gladly come to your house and help you tear it apart in exchange for pizza and beer.  Especially if you get the good pizza.  I recommend Lido’s in Van Nuys, or Joe Peep’s in Valley Village.  People love to break stuff: it’s cathartic, it’s a great workout and it relieves stress.  Just keep your friends away from the beer until they are tired of pulling up shingles on the roof. 

It’s all fun and games until someone falls off the roof.

You are going to have a whole lot of stuff to get rid of in any demolition job.  This is what dumpsters are for.  The waste removal service will most likely charge you a flat rate per load.  I will readily admit to “mis-underestimating” just how much space the old roof was going to take up.  I forget the price, but this cost me at least $300 and maybe as much as $500 because I had to get two loads moved and disposed of.  When in doubt go for the bigger one. 

For smaller jobs you can get something called a Bagster which is like a giant heavy duty garbage bag, that you call Waste Management to come pick up with a truck.  It can hold 1.5 tons of trash, three cubic yards, or 600 gallons of junk.  I would have needed about ten of these I think, but they are cheap to buy, cheap to fill and cheap to get picked up.  Bagsters also don’t take up a parking space, or bother the neighbors.

I spent a long time browsing the shovels, crowbars, and other implements of destruction at Home Depot and came home with an assortment I thought would work.  The single best tool for ripping up old cedar shingles turned out to be cheap four-pronged weeding hoes.  You swing it through an arc, driving the prongs through the shingles and the rip them up.  This took a long time.  Thankfully I had 5-6 friends who came and spent hours ripping stuff up and throwing it off the roof.  My wife and several other friends scooped it up and wheel-barrowed it out to the dumpster. 

End of phase one.

Phase two was not as messy, or as back-breaking as phase one.  It involved pulling out 60,000 individual nails, one at a time.  I honestly don’t even want to think about this part of the job.  It was like moving a pile of sand with a pair of tweezers.  Even if you hire roofers for the rest, phases one and two are the most labor intensive, and the best places to save yourself money. 

Don’t be afraid, how can you screw up demolition?

Phase three was much easier.  Cedar shingle roofs, unlike asphalt tile, is applied to 1″ x 4″ boards spaced 6″ apart.  This leaves you with a surface to stand on that is 1/2 missing.  My big feet slipped through several times, leading to YouTube worthy accidents, and my friend Kelly nearly took the quick way into the living room.  It took two men to haul her out of the attic and she was bruised for weeks.  Before you can put a modern roof on, plywood sheeting has to go down over those 1 x 4s.  It’s been said many times before:  measure twice, cut once.  Draw yourself a scale model of the roof.  By properly measuring the whole thing you can avoid buying excess sheets of plywood.  I have never been a believer in driving nails with air tools, but this project converted me.  I suggest borrowing or renting a compressor and a framing nailer for this part.  Most big chain home improvement stores will rent them to you and the time you save is well worth the money spent. 

Phase three was complete when the building inspector came by and gave us a thumbs up.  He even said something about how good a job we were doing for a couple of amateurs.

Phase four involves the actual roof.  The modern asphalt shingle roof seems as if it was designed  from the start to be idiot proof.  The old roof was a layer of 1″ x 4″, a layer of tar paper, a layer of shingles, more tar paper, and another layer of shingles.  There were places in the old roof where I could see light from the attic, and yet it still didn’t leak.  Cedar shingles have a natural tendency to soak up water and channel it through the grain from one end to the other.  If it wasn’t for the fire danger, and termites, they would still be a great choice for roofing.

Your scale drawing of the roof will also come in handy when it comes time to buy the shingles.  I have a few tips for you here that will help the bottom line too.  I got all my shingles at Lowe’s.  I had to drive five miles past the Home Depot to get there, but it was worth it because I had a 10% off coupon they had sent me when I bought the house.  The coupon was good on only one transaction, so I bought them all at once and rented Lowe’s by-the-hour truck to get them home in one trip instead of three.  If you do get too many shingles, never fear, you can return unopened packages with your receipt up to 30 days later, no questions asked.

Once you have the solid plywood roof, you roll on a layer of tar paper.  Start at the bottom and work your way up.  That is the mantra of the roofer and one secret to making it leak proof.  One third of the tar paper goes over the last layer of tar paper.  One half of the shingle goes over the last shingle.  All the way up to the peak of the roof.  Then a shingle covers the top, half on either side of the peak.  When you are done, any place on that roof is covered by at least two shingles, and 1-2 layers of tar paper.  Add some drip rails on the edges between the shingles and tar paper, some flashing, and some black goo from a tube to glue it all down and its done.

It’s been over a year now and nothing leaks. 

If you’re planning on replacing your own roof yourself, start as early as possible in the year–once you are out of your rainy season.  We started in early May, only to get an early heat wave that lead to temperatures in the 100s and a 1/2 hour break for every hour worked for a couple of days.  We still find the occasional nail in the yard that we missed in clean-up.  And there is still a spot in the back yard where the grass has not quite recovered from all the debris we dumped on it.  Take a look at the top picture again, compared to that last one.  All in all we saved at least 50% on the roof–and as the old saying goes “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

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  1. DCStewart

    5 years ago

    Great DIY work and post! I got a quote recently to replace ours for 8k…saving 4k would definitely be worth it!

  2. brwood

    5 years ago

    I don’t remember what our final total was. I’m thinking we spend about $2k on shingles and less than that on everything else. I know we had change left over from $4000. That’s what happens when you pay people with pizza. Don’t tell the labor department.

  3. PunchYourself

    5 years ago

    I prefer to pay my minions in gruel and hose water, but this is an excellent post. Do-It-Yourself awesomeness. You should also let people know that moving packets at the post office often come with these 1-Time 10% discount coupons for fixing up your place as well as other helpful moving coupons. It actually pays to register your new address at the post office. Unless you owe the IRS. Then, scratch all that.

  4. brwood

    5 years ago

    Thanks Martha


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